What is Urban Air Mobility?
By Clint Harper
Recently, Urban Air Mobility (UAM) technology has been compared with flying cars that would fulfill visions of The Jetsons cartoon. While this imagery is fun, it’s important that we remain anchored on the fact that this technology is the future of aviation, regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with safety as the top priority. While UAM offers opportunities to complement and enhance other modes of transportation, we must be clear that this is not “flying cars,” nor is it a new form of the private automobile.
In the past, UAM could be described simply as moving within a city through the air. Traditionally this refers to helicopters; while some have also used the term to refer to aerial cable cars, such as gondolas. In Southern California, traveling through a metro area in the air has a history that goes back to the late 1940s when Los Angeles Airways provided helicopter service across the greater Los Angeles area. Similar services were also offered in cities such as Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco. More recently, private helicopter charters have moved people, cargo, and even critical medical supplies in congested urban areas.
Today, the FAA defines UAM as a safe and efficient aviation transportation system that will use highly automated aircraft to transport passengers, or cargo, at lower altitudes within urban and suburban areas. Urban Air Mobility is a subset of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), which includes rural applications, regional transportation, and other services like surveying, infrastructure inspections, and emergency response. In acknowledgment that this industry is rapidly evolving, the FAA has indicated that they are working on updating and refining this definition.
In general, Urban and Advanced Air Mobility concepts are employing new aircraft designs with innovative technologies in propulsion and automation.
New propulsion systems are available for aircraft, such as electric and hybrid motors. Hydrogen concepts are also in development. Electric motors have far fewer moving parts and are therefore, are much less complex; this significantly reduces the number of sources of potential “catastrophic failure,” a technical term that refers to a mechanical malfunction that could result in a crash. New aircraft also utilize designs with multiple motors with redundant power sources, which also increase the overall safety of these aircraft.
Automation, similar to an auto-pilot system found on aircraft today, helps reduce pilot or operator workload, as well as to streamline air traffic management. This streamlines the operation of the aircraft and management of the airspace. Automation is incrementally evolving, so while you may hear about visions of fully autonomous vehicles, most aircraft will continue to be operated by an FAA-certified pilot, in airspace controlled by an FAA-certified controller, for the foreseeable future.
All aircraft that are used commercially will need to be certified by the FAA (moving passengers, cargo, or any other commercial / for-profit use). The FAA continues to certify the aircraft, the operation, and the pilot to ensure a high degree of safety. Examples of these aircraft are those developed by companies such as Archer, Elroy Air, Joby, and Volocopter.
There are legacy concerns with aviation regarding emissions, noise, sustainability, and accessibility — especially in communities that have historically been burdened by such impacts through existing highways and other external factors. Many industry experts anticipate that Urban and Advanced Air Mobility will reduce the carbon impacts of air travel across shorter trips with lighter loads using electric aircraft that are safer, quieter, and more accessible when compared to traditional helicopters. As the industry scales and becomes more affordable, it may serve as a viable transportation alternative to the personal automobile for some trips as a part of a multimodal system. Urban and Advanced Air Mobility is not a silver bullet to our transportation woes; but if planned thoughtfully, can be an important component of a future integrated transportation system that features a range of travel options.
With Urban and Advanced Air Mobility, we have an opportunity to study and plan new transportation infrastructure thoughtfully before associated vehicles are operational. We can work to incorporate lessons learned from past transportation investments to avoid new injustices in historically burdened communities and explore how UAM can be a component of a holistic transportation system that prioritizes the movement of people, not vehicles — be it by transit, bicycling, walking, or aviation.